Pittsburgh–why do I hate a city I love to read about?

My sincere, sincere apologies for not blogging during the week.  Unfortunately, my school life took over my academic life, but my grading is (almost) done, and I’m free to think about books again!

Because of my intense grading blitzkrieg this week/weekend, I haven’t had much time to read.  I’m still thoroughly enjoying Sunnyside, but haven’t had the time to make much of a dent in it.  I’m working my way through several dystopic novels (blech!) and will, I’m sure, post on them at some point soon.  But I have still been thinking about books, and so here are some of those thoughts.

My husband, as some of you may know, is a huge Jets fan.  He loves them I think a little bit more than he loves me.  So, of course, after their win last night his first thought was “Let’s try to go to Pittsburgh.”  My immediate response was “Ugh, Pittsburgh.”  I have only been to Pittsburgh once, but I have no fond memories of it, partly because of events that transpired there (I got in trouble!  I never get in trouble!), and partly because I found little to no charm in the city itself.  It was dark and unwelcoming, and it seemed both bizarrely old fashioned and unfortunately modern.  It was a city that couldn’t define itself.

But as I began to complain about Pittsburgh, I realized that two of my favorite books are set there.  The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by my one of my (already admitted) favorite authors Michael Chabon and I Had Seen Castles, a wonderfully descriptive Young Adult novel by Cynthia Rylant.  In both books the darkness of Pittsburgh is important–it gives the characters a reason for their brooding treatises on life.  In both books Pittsburgh’s refusal to modernize even in the face of modernization is important–they are books about change and resistance to it.

So I thought about other books where setting seemed important.   Persuasion, one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, is set largely in Bath.  I’ve never been there, but Austen’s characterization of it makes it seem delightful–a place I’d love to vacation.  Clearly in Wuthering Heights setting is almost as important as character.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (required reading for any sensitive young girl growing up in Brooklyn with a penchant for words) transports me to Brooklyn every time I read it, regardless of how different Francie Nolan’s Brooklyn is from mine.  Reading A Streetcar Named Desire evokes the heavy air of New Orleans in the 50s (time AND place) but the city never overpowers the story.  In Dublin there are few streets that don’t remind a real Joycean of Dubliners or UlyssesA Moveable Feast is boring but I read it time and again for its depiction of Paris, one of my favorite cities.

Then there are books with ambiguous settings.  In the case of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, last month’s book club choice, the lack of setting bothered me.  When was the book set?  Where was it set?  Why the vagueness, Aimee Bender?  But in The House of Mango Street, the absence of stated setting (although it is ostensibly set in Chicago, according to Cisneros), allowed me to place Esmerelda’s story within my own urban context.

So how important is setting in literature?  In creative writing classes it’s a focus, but is it necessary?  Do books have to have a sense of place?  Or is plot and great characters enough?  Can a lack of setting work (a la Mango Street)?  Is a great setting enough?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Pittsburgh–why do I hate a city I love to read about?

  1. Georg

    Location, location, location.

    I’m not sure if you saw it (biting tongue on easy Jersey joke.) but last weeks New York Mag featured debates among the luminaries in a number of fields deciding on The Best of New York..TV(Seinfeld..Duh) Building (Whitney/Grand Central) Sports Player (Mayes/ Gehrig/ Ruth) Movie (Dog Day Afternoon) Mayor (Bloomberg!?) Etc…

    For best novel they turned to Sam Anderson. He chose The Age of Innocence. I’ve never read it so I will not pass judgment. But while mentioned what would have been some of my top picks-Kavalier and Clay, Invisible Man (Ellison), and Catcher in the Rye-he chose The Age of Innocence which as he puts it is “100 percent devoted to the narrow world of white upper-class Protestant heterosexuals.” Go figure.

    As far as Pittsburgh goes I went there twice. Once to be introduced to my boyfriends family after 2 years…as his “friend”. And then once again a year later to drop him and his belongings off at the end of the affair. As we drove through the city-past abandoned factories and re-purposed mills-the Steel City felt cold. It reminded me of Vonnegut’s Illium. The city was as much a metaphor of our refusal to accept defeat (the relationship) as it is of our refusal to change (cause of said relationship failing.)

    The thing I find most perplexing was the fact that Nora Ephron wheedled her way into the Sardi’s round table which decided on the best BWay show…(Guys and Dolls/Gypsy and Sweeney Todd)

    “Money don’t buy you class”

    Hi ho!

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